Spartans stand tall, beat loaded Wildcats in marquee early season thriller

Dan Wetzel
Special to Yahoo Sports

CHICAGO – Tom Izzo came walking down a back hall of the United Center when he all but stumbled upon John Calipari.

The two coaches had just seen their teams produce a highly entertaining, back-and-forth, down-to-the-wire game that was fitting of a No. 1 vs. No. 2 clash.

In the end, Izzo's Michigan State Spartans beat Calipari's top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats, 78-74.

It was at least a half hour after the game when Calipari called Izzo over. The two friends embraced and shared a couple words before Cal opined a wish.

"I hope we play again in April," he said.

"Me too," Izzo responded.

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This wasn't truly a craving for a rematch, per se, both men said later. It just stems from a simple fact that to play again that late in the season means they reached at least the Final Four. And any coach, even the ones on top of the national rankings, will take that deal right now.

There was more though. There were signs that each man saw that both spoke to why they remain optimistic that this could be a national championship season and why, perhaps even more importantly, their faith in how they run their different programs has been renewed on this cold night here.

For Izzo, this wasn't just a victory. It was a victory over the top-ranked team in the country, a victory over uber-cool Kentucky, a victory on national television, a victory in an early season marquee matchup that Michigan State (2-0) always seems to be playing, but only occasionally actually wins.

Izzo will play anyone, anywhere – his place, your place or on an aircraft carrier. He built the Spartans up to the point where Final Fours are common and the program belongs in this annual early season double-header with blue bloods Kansas, Duke and UK. It's just that they tend to lose. Then you toss in repeated losses to Calipari on the recruiting trail – the 'Cats got 19 from James Young of Troy, Mich.

These other teams get the best recruits, or so the narrative goes. Izzo just knows how to coach really good, but perhaps not great, teams.

Then came a victory. And it was a victory to anyone paying attention. It was more than just an experienced team teaching a young talented one a lesson about keeping poise under the bright lights of Michael Jordan's house with NBA executives ringing the court. After all, it took five minutes for Kentucky to score and by then it was 10-zip.

"I told my staff it was going to happen," Calipari said. "I said, 'Let's just hope it doesn't get to 15-0.' "

To put this all on experience though is to ignore that Izzo may have his most talented club in a decade. Keith Appling and Adreian Payne may be seniors, but they can play, combining for 37 points. And Gary Harris is a sophomore (old by UK standards) but plenty of NBA folks were here to watch him as well.

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Yes, Kentucky (2-1) is loaded – "How many NBA teams have seven first-round picks?" Izzo wondered. Michigan State is loaded too though, and that more than anything is what made Izzo smile after.

"You do have to win a game every once in awhile to say we do belong in the fight," Izzo said. "That's what I'll take out of this."

The talent differential wasn't that great. Michigan State likely has the superior backcourt. As for the Spartans getting out rebounded by the taller Wildcats, Izzo was already licking his chops at some upcoming drills where he could "bring out the [football] pads." The prospect of being ranked No. 1 seemed welcome.

"Yeah, they are going to get better," Izzo conceded. "But so are we."

Calipari is certainly counting on getting his guys better. He just kept shaking his head after some of the terrible plays that his many freshman stars made. They failed to box out. They couldn't catch passes. They stood around and held the ball until they got stripped. They missed free throws (16 of them).

Of course, they also almost won the game.

Julius Randle, the outrageously-gifted lefty forward, would make the worst play in the world on one end and then catch the ball on the next possession and just will his way into position for a soft-lefty floater. He finished with a remarkable line of 27 points, 13 rebounds and … eight turnovers.

 "He's good enough," Izzo said with a laugh. "He doesn't need to get any better."

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Talent isn't the issue for Calipari. He knows he has it. Everyone knows he has it. Marcus Lee was the No. 19 recruit in the country last year out of California. He played one minute Tuesday as the third-string center.

Putting these super-recruit teams together though is no simple task. "Building any team isn't," Calipari notes, and while that's true, he concedes 18-year-olds are 18-year-olds. You have to get guys who are clearly playing for the draft, to remember to buy into the team first.

He's been the master at making it work, reaching the 2011 Final Four and winning the 2012 national title with rookie-dominated teams. Then again an implosion of bad chemistry led UK to a first-round NIT loss earlier this year. Every season is always an experiment.

So what happened out on the court wasn't actually the most important thing Calipari saw on Tuesday. It was when he got back to the locker room and found his guys in tears over the loss.

"They all love each other," Calipari told Yahoo Sports.

That suggests that the mistakes, even selfish play or forced plays, came because, as Cal noted, "They don't know." Not from a base behavior that can't be fixed. This team has some character to it.

"They're good," he said. "They're going to be good."

So the No. 1 team in the country and the No. 2 team in the country went their separate ways Tuesday and two national championship coaches left with vastly different emotions – winning and losing will do that.

Yet in the end there was a commonality. Both teams are strong. Both teams can get stronger. Both teams are strong enough to win it all.

See you in April, Cal said.

Yeah, Izzo said, that'd be fine, just fine.

First week of the season, and no one here was backing down when it came to talking about the last.

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